200 years of the JP RSS

J.P. Duties Over the Years

Ric Carlyon - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

J.P. duties have been many and varied over the years.... today, many seem quaint… and, as will be seen, in some cases unbelievable!

As part of activities to mark 200 years of service by J.P.s to New Zealand, here’s a sampling of what we’ve  been called on to do over the past two centuries with an emphasis on times past…

+ From the early 1840s local J.P.s were responsible for revising their district’s Jury List.

The Duke of Marlborough, Russell, today.

+ From the same time, J.P.s were also responsible for granting publican’s licences. 
The first issued in New Zealand, to John Johnson for the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Kororareka (Russell) was signed on the 30th October 1840 - only after Justices of the Peace authorised it. 

+ 3 senior J.P.s joined Governor Hobson and the Executive Council to form our first Legislative Council

+ The “Cattle Trespass Ordinance No. 10” of 1846 gave any 2 J.P.s power to take evidence about damages done by straying cattle which had been inadequately fenced and, if proven, levy compensation costs against the owner of the wandering stock.
+ In the mid-late 1800s J.P.s had the say on the disposal of strayed stock under the Impounding Act, 1856. Roaming animals would be put in the Public Pound waiting to be claimed by their owner. The Pound-keeper was duty bound to advertise a description of the animals and if no one claimed them he would sell them to defray costs for feed. But first a JP had to approve the sale. 

+ The Defence Act 1886 also mentioned a duty for J.P.s. Any person guilty of interrupting or obstructing any Defence Forces at parade, muster, or inspection, the person having been first warned off by an Officer, may be arrested, held until after the conclusion of military manoeuvres for the day and then, at the Officer’s discretion, taken in custody before a J.P. There was provision for a maximum fine of one pound.
+ J.P.s heard witnesses’ accounts after the 1843 Wairau affray, the bloody engagement between Maori and British settlers, which left 22 British and 4 Maori dead

+ Whether an official duty or not, in 1861 an un-named J.P. in Otago thought it proper to report a gold discovery to the Superintendent of the Province.

“It’s a new gold-field,” the letter advised, “a rich deposit near Moeraki. The gold is of a finer description than any I have yet seen, not much water-worn, and I should describe it as half-pea nuggetty”.  The information was wrong. The nuggets had come from somewhere else. Diggers were warned off and the J.P. was publicly admonished for his “absurd alarm”.

+ J.P.s residing on the coast were expected to report debris washed up after shipwrecks.
Details were received on flotsam from the brigantine “Hercules” which foundered on the Kaipara Harbour heads in 1874 and news of a lifeboat washed ashore from HMS “Dart”, thought missing off North Cape in a storm in 1889. The ship, in fact, survived the gale losing her boat overboard in mountainous seas off Three Kings Islands.

+ In 1850s Governor Sir George Grey introduced what we today would call a Small Claims Tribunal, with JPs presiding. Although controversial, the measure meant that any civil claim could be decided by Resident Magistrate, or any two or more Justices of the Peace, by way of summary proceeding, provided that neither of the parties were of the native race, that the defendant resided more than 10 miles from the office of any Court of Requests, and that the debt or damage claimed did not exceed twenty pounds.

+ In the 1880s Justices of the Peace could ensure paupers got a burial.  The Cemeteries Act provided that a poor person might be buried free in any section of a cemetery on an order signed by a J.P.

+ Justices of the Peace had two roles in an 1846 law which enabled insane persons to be detained. First, two JPs had to be satisfied that medical practitioners testifying about lunatics had appropriate qualifications. Having proved their credentials the doctors could, on oath, give evidence before the J.P.s that persons were dangerous lunatics or idiots, following which  the J.P.s, where appropriate, had authority to commit such persons to “strict custody”.

+ J.P.s, under an 1880 Act, could vouch for the “good reputation” of an alien seeking naturalisation.

+ In the 1880s J.P.s., exclusively, decided sentences for serious disciplinary matters within the New Zealand Volunteer Forces. The Commanding Officer of J. Battery, the N.Z. Artillery Volunteers, Gisborne, thought he should be entitled to decide punishment and appealed the question in the Supreme Court. Mr Justice Richmond said “under Section 46 of the Volunteer Act the commanding officer is the prosecutor, not the judge… ….the jurisdiction to adjudicate is given to Justices of the Peace alone”. The proceedings were widely reported in New Zealand newspapers of the day, headlined “Important Decision For Volunteers”.    

+ In the handbook “New Zealand Justice of the Peace” by W. C. R. Haselden, 1895, J.P.s are advised of new responsibilities within legislation. In the past year, he reported, the following had been added to existing J.P.s’ duties: Abattoirs, Criminal Code, Destitute Persons, Gaming, Indictable Offences, Lunatics, Oaths, Offensive Publications, School Attendance, Shipping, Sea Fisheries, Shops and Shop Assistants and the Stamp Act.  “This,” wrote the author, “is illustration of the speed in which legislation is going on”.

+In March 1928 Mrs N. E. Ferner and Miss S. E. Jackson were given a unique role. Under Section 27 of the Child Welfare Act they were appointed Justices with jurisdiction on the bench in the Auckland Children’s Court. Mrs Ferner had sat with the presiding magistrate as “associate member” since April 1925 when that court was constituted but for those 3 years could only tender advice on cases brought forward. Mrs Nellie Ferner founded the Sunshine School in the old Nelson Street School in 1928, a day-care haven for children as they recuperated after hospital treatment and for others needing care. Fresh air, good diet and sunlight were features of the institution, later credited with fewer cases of delinquency seen by the Courts. Miss Jackson was until 1925 matron of the Mount Albert Industrial Home. She retired after 34 years’ service, so had wide experience in child welfare work.

+ For many years J.P.s have sat as Coroners.
The Evening Post in 1936… “Magistrates in New Zealand by virtue of their office are Coroners, and every Coroner by virtue of his office is a Justice of the Peace. The Coronership in this country is not confined to Magistrates, there being a number of Coroners who are not Magistrates. They are usually appointed from the ranks of the Justices of the Peace to determine when, where and why death occurred”.

+ JPs also regularly acted as coroners at inquests into the cause of fires, whether or not they resulted in death or injury. The enquiry was to decide the cause, and, if necessary, to make any recommendations, usually to try to prevent recurrence. In 1889 B. O. Stewart, J.P. “and a respectable jury” (as the Daily Southern Cross newspaper put it) inquired into a fire that destroyed Mr Roberts’ Port Waikato home. The jury could not determine the cause.

+ But it was different in 1926 when A. S. Laird, J.P. conducted an inquest into a blaze that wiped out almost the entire township of Raurimu. “I return an open verdict. In my opinion evidence is insufficient to warrant a charge being made, and… I find that the Spiral Hotel was burned down under suspicious circumstances, and that all the other buildings were destroyed as a result of the fire in the hotel".

 + J.P.s were called on to perform tasks well outside thjeir offiial duties.
Consider Mr Phillip Sebastien Riley’s long day in December 1934 when as a J.P. he witnessed an attempt on the world shearing record at Pihama in Taranaki. Crack shearer Percy de Malmanche put through 409 sheep in 9 hours, breaking the world record.
Mr Riley issued a certificate to that effect, adding in his own handwriting that, unlike some shearers, de Malmanche had, unaided, caught and dragged each sheep from the pen. (The record survived until the 1950s when Godfrey Bowen broke it.)

+Electoral - In the old days it was up to J.P.s to scan the electoral rolls to ensure only eligible people were listed, and at the other end of the process, J.P.s to this day are still deployed to observe the final official counting of votes after elections.

+Electoral – J.P.s in earlier times were requited to witness electoral petitions when there were challenges to the declared result of local body elections.


+New regulations to the Poisons Act in 1937 meant a J.P. or police officer had to vouch for the identification of those persons not known to the pharmacist who wished to buy the more potent poisons.

+J.P.s signed off destruction of animals.
In February 1934 a severely injured horse lying in the road in Lower Hutt was destroyed by police after a J.P. signed an appropriate enabling certificate pursuant to the Police Offences Act.

+As late as 1939 if a J.P. signed a declaration, satisfied that a deceased person’s estate, or relatives, had insufficient funds to pay for the burial, the trustees of any cemetery were obliged to bury the body free of charge.

Mary Anderson. J. P.

+ In June 1945 Auckland J.P. Mary Anderson, was reputedly the first woman to sit on the bench as a Magistrate. She had been appointed JP in 1943.

+ In 1863 importation of cattle regulations were liberalised in Southland with a role for JPs. Stock arriving in port from Australia could now be landed without a declaration signed overseas to the effect that the animals came from a disease-free environment. Under new rules the importer could swear a statement before a local Magistrate or 2 Justices of the Peace attesting that the animals came from a “clean” area, to best knowledge and belief, free from infectious disease, and once the statutory form was completed the cattle could be landed.  

+For decades J.P.s swore in members of fire brigades as Fire Police until the office was phased out in 2010. Once sworn, individuals had the power under the Fire Service Act of police constables at fires and other emergencies.

Fire Police cap badge c.1933

Auckland had the biggest Fire Police Unit which began in 1933 and over the years grew to a fire brigade in its own right of 60 volunteer members. The Unit’s first Captain was Harry Jane, J.P., who swore in the members annually.

+ In local body elections some authorities decide to publish the candidates’ names on voting documents in pseudo-random order, rather than in traditional alphabetical order, as provided in the Local Electoral Regulations 2001. A J.P. is often called to draw names out of a hat to determine the “pseudo-random order”. 

+ J.P.s were regular witnesses at executions until capital punishment ended in 1957. The 1858 Act provided for any JPs who wished to be present, but must remain until after the hanging and then sign testimony that the death sentence had been carried out. A Justice also made orders to appropriate persons who, within 8 hours of the hanging, were allowed to view the body.

+ Some newspapers required the signature of a Justice of the Peace appended to copy submitted for publication in Births, Deaths and Marriages notices. Other newspapers stipulated that a J.P., clergyman or the paper’s local agent could sign as authentication. 

+ J.P.s had a role in the Destitute Persons Act 1908.
Presented with a complaint on oath that a parent is not providing for a child under 16 years of age, a J.P. may issue a summons requiring the parent to show cause why a maintenance order should not be issued.

In some overseas jursidictions posters warned citizens that the effects of the Riot Act applied  

+ J.P.s and the Riot Act.
Prior to reform of the Crimes Act in 1987, J.P.s were among those authorised by law to read a clause incorporating the so-called “Riot Act”. Where 12 or more persons unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together for the disturbance of the public peace, a J.P. using a loud voice first had to command silence. And, after that, openly, and with equally loud voice make a proclamation - ”Her Majesty the Queen commands all of you to disperse immediately and to go quietly to your homes or to your lawful business, upon pain of being charged with an offence punishable by imprisonment for 5 years. God Save the Queen!".

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